May is National Mental Health Month — an initiative lunched in 1949. This is the most highly recognized mental health awareness event in the nation. And now, more than ever, all of us need to know and understand more about mental health and mental illness.
Lives depend on it.
Modern living has introduced levels of stress that are unprecedented, especially among our youth.
The fast pace of change, the breakdown of the family unit and societal norms, and the emergence of the internet and social media are some of the forces that are making life stressful for youth. Somewhat surprisingly, a recent survey found that social media and bullying ranked number one and two as the most devastating stressors for the young. Many of our children these days are stressed out.
It seems like every day, cable news channels report horrific stories of mass school shootings and other trauma inducing messages, and young people are responding with rising rates of suicide, drug addiction and alcoholism.
Adding to the problem, is the stigma often associated with mental illness that keeps children and their families from seeking help when needed.
What can be done?
According to Dr. James O’Dea, vice president of Hartford Healthcare Behavioral Network, “We need to face it head on.”
In an opinion piece that appeared in the New Britain Herald on April 2, O’Dea said: “With mass shootings and related suicides on the rise, all of us must play a role in stopping these gut-wrenching tragedies. We need to be open, honest and direct if we suspect anything is awry with our friends, family, loved ones, and acquaintances — especially if they have suffered from a traumatic episode in the past.”
O’Dea noted that it is important to know troubling warning signs. These include: “Feelings of always being unsafe or at risk. Sleep and appetite changes. Preoccupation with past or current traumatic events … that could trigger traumatic memories. Survivors guilt — wondering why they were not harmed but someone they loved or cared for was. Significant changes in behavio. No longer enjoying things like they used to. Pronounced emotional highs and lows. Withdrawal from society or shutting down.”
It is not only OK to discuss issues of trauma with children and adults — it's necessary and it could save a life. Questions that Dr. O’Dea suggests: “Are there times that you feel your life is not worth living? Are there times you want to go to bed at night and hope you don’t wake up in the morning? If the answer to either question is yes, then follow up questions may include: Have you had thoughts of ending your life? Have you made attempts to commit suicide? Have you done some things to organize your life around a suicide attempt?”
Answers to these questions may trigger an alarm and it is important that we do a follow-up.
If we hear something troubling, there are people who can help: a primary care provider, pediatrician, a mental health provider, or by calling 2-1-1 in Connecticut or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-271-8255. Locally, the Rushford Center conducts “Mental Health First Aid” training for interested individuals or groups, 203-630-5357.
It is up to all of us to protect our children and help them deal with the life stresses they are facing: social media cyber-bullying, traumatic events, peer pressure, high expectations from parents, and loss of a loved one or pet. It is important to recognize and respond to signs of resultant mental stress, mental illness or possible self harm.
Michael S. Rohde is a former mayor and city councilor of Meriden.
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